Category Archives: Writing

Nonfiction Course

I’ll be teaching a new nonfiction course, “Nonfiction Series for the Weekend Student” at Simon Fraser University beginning in January. It’s six Saturdays, and is open to anyone interested in working on their nonfiction writing ability. Below is a partial description of the course; hope to see some of you there.

Non-fiction writing at its best is about storytelling, probing the deeply personal and the profoundly incomprehensible questions: who are we, why are we here, what boundaries define and limit our human activities, where do our responsibilities lie?
In this intensive course, we will explore strategies and tools to craft effective non-fiction pieces for newspapers, magazines, blogs and books.
The course will be hands-on, interactive and participatory, including reading and analysis of a broad range of non-fiction writing, exercises to expand your non-fiction toolbox, workshop opportunities to give and receive feedback and an in-depth consultation with the instructor to review an edited submission of your writing and discuss how to move towards publication.

What will I learn?

Explore a range of non-fiction genres, including:
-feature magazine articles
-personal memoir
-newspaper commentary
-full-length books
-and others
Construct and develop a compelling narrative for your work
Adopt the mantras of non-fiction writers: brevity, clarity, focus and impact
Work on first paragraphs that draw in readers
Personalize your non-fiction to include your own experience
Identify your audience
Learn how to concentrate on critical detail
Give, and receive, feedback
Develop strategies for non-fiction publication

About the instructor
Mark Winston

Mark L. Winston is the recipient of the 2015 Governor General’s Literary Award for Nonfiction for his bestselling book Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive. His work has appeared in six books receiving diverse awards, including the 2015 Science in Society General Book Award from the Canadian Science Writers Association, a CBC Best Books Award (for Bee Time) and the Sterling Prize for Controversy. His 1998 book Nature Wars was also short-listed for the BP Natural World Book Prize. He has written for many outlets, including columns for the Vancouver Sun, The New York Times, The Sciences and Orion, among others. Mark is a fellow in the Royal Society of Canada, a professor and senior fellow in Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue, and a professor of biological sciences.

Fragments

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Poetry and science may seem to have little in common, but they do share one trait: building from fragments. I’m collaborating with a wonderful poet, Renee Sarojini Saklikar, on the Honey, Hives and Poetry project, in which we’ve been reading together at events from her poems and my prose, and writing some new material in response to each other’s work.

As Renee puts it: “One of my poetry obsessions is the fragment. Each time I read from my long poems I select fragments, further reducing the pieces, a reductive process that speaks to me of possibility . . .”

Scientific research is simultaneously reductive while discovering meaning by repeatedly recombining small bits of information in different ways. Experiments resemble poems trimmed down to their simplest bytes, expressing the scientist’s hope that disparate data might assemble into the fullness of story, revealing objective truth considerably more profound than its constituent parts.

So it was that words became a line and eventually a poem as we unraveled the identity and function of the honeybee queen pheromone over close to two decades of research. My chemistry colleague, the late Keith Slessor, had become interested in the retinue of ten to twelve worker bees that surround the queen, licking and touching their antennae to her furiously for one to two minutes each. Our hypothesis was that they were picking up the queen’s pheromones and transmitting them throughout the nest.

We had made extracts from dead queens to use in identifying her chemical signature, but had no way of determining whether worker bees responded. One day, in frustration, one of our students put a dab of extract onto a glass pipette and thrust it into into a cage of bees, exclaiming, “Take that, you bloody bees.” To her surprise, they formed a retinue around the glass as if it were a queen.

We had found our bioassay, but it still took tens of thousands of assays excising, macerating, extracting, eluting and observing over two decades to identify nine compounds that work in a synergistic mix, attracting worker bees to attend their monarch. Each individual pheromone we identified represented another fragment that then had to be tested in combination with the growing number of other compounds, until eventually the full poem of the complex honeybee queen pheromone grew from its nine simple words.

It’s a thing of beauty, this multi-fragment queen pheromone, an elixir of elegant function, reminiscent of the elusive perfection captured in the best poetry, where snippets of language weave together into a whole much more compelling than its individual parts.

I imagine writing poetry is like that, a mental image of Renee at work in her writing laboratory, testing combinations of words together, rejecting innumerable linguistic dead ends until the etymological data tell her the poem is done.

It’s fragments coalescing into meaning, at the junction where science and poetry intersect on common ground.

(In memory of Keith Slessor, a poet in chemistry)

Comments welcome:

Authors for Indies

Munro's signing

I’m excited to be taking part in my first “Authors for Indies” day on Saturday 30 April, at 32Books in North Vancouver. But even more exciting has been my growing realization that independent bookstores in North America are alive and thriving, recovering from a difficult time about a decade ago when many indies were toppling due to competition with big box bookstores and e-books.

Authors for Indies describes the event as “a day when authors show their appreciation for Canadian independent bookstores (indies) by volunteering as guest booksellers for the day . . . You’ll have the opportunity to meet local authors, chat with us booklover to booklover, and get book recommendations . . . Authors are doing this to raise awareness of indie bookstores and how important they are to our communities, our reading lives, and our cultural well-being. It’s a day to give some love to your local neighbourhood bookstore.”

I’ve been giving love to local bookstores since, well, forever, but recently I’ve added opportunities to fuel my passion for indies by reading from my recent book “Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive” at independent stores all across North America. These experiences verified that indies remain treasured resources in local communities all across Canada and the United States.

I began my reading tour with a Pacific Northwest swing, starting at Munro’s in Victoria, British Columbia. Recently rated one of the top ten independent bookstores in the world, Munro’s was founded by Jim Munro and his then-wife, the stellar Canadian author Alice Munro, in 1963. It’s in a beautifully restored former Royal Bank building, decorated with elegant wooden shelves, a coffered ceiling and stunning fabric banners by the artist Carole Sabiston that depict classic works of literature.

But it’s Munro’s friendly and knowledgeable team with superb taste in what to stock that sets it apart from the big box and online retailers, even more than its bookstore-perfect space. It’s that bit of magic that characterizes indies, each with its own quirky blend of books that delights browsers with that delightful find of a new author, and highlights the diverse reading tastes of their staff that extend our range of interests as readers.

My west coast tour continued through the Elliot Bay Book Company in Seattle and on to Powell’s City of Books in Portland. Elliot Bay has a lighter-colored wood look, but like Munro’s exhibits extensive curated sections that open previously untraveled reading vistas. I’m particularly fond of their Pacific Northwest section, where I’ve been introduced to many fine writers, and their sale tables, which unlike many bargain bins have excellent books.

Elliot Bay is also similar to Munro’s in hosting an active series of authors’ readings, in their case over 3000 events of poetry, fiction and nonfiction in the last decade. These readings highlight another outstanding characteristic of independent bookstores, which Elliot Bay expresses well on their website: “As with many of the books we highlight, there are many authors who have read here as relatively unknown, and who have gone on to wider acclaim. Readers and audiences here have long been among the first to help move these writers and their work out into the larger world.

And they were one of the first bookstores to combine a coffee shop with their bookstore, a natural blend of café culture and readers.

Powell’s is another independent rated as one of the top ten in the world. It’s an iconic stop on any booklovers tour, a mix of 2 million used, new and out-of-print titles. Powell’s is a all-day destination, open 365 days a year, with a café to catch your breath and many dusty corners reminiscent of library browsing but with all the volumes for sale.

They, too, connect books in unexpected but delightful patterns. On my last visit Powell’s had a memoir sale, focusing attention on a genre neglected by more commercially driven bookstores.

Powell’s City of Books represents another important aspect of independent bookstores: they are economic drivers. Powell’s has 530 employees, and is one of the top tourist destinations in Portland. Many, like myself, have visited Portland solely to spend a day at Powell’s. Its flagship store is as eclectic as it’s books. The original building was a car dealership, but the current store expanded to a full city block by cobbling together a mix of odd buildings that could never have been planned from scratch.

I’ve toured across Canada over the last year, reading at bookstores, literary festivals, libraries, universities and beekeeping clubs. Beyond their physical stores, the independents have staffed tables selling “Bee Time” at events, providing a rich opportunity to talk books and pick up recommendations for further reading.

My gratitude to these fine bookstores has gone well beyond the pleasure they have brought me as a costumer. “Bee Time” became a Canadian bestseller largely because of the support provided by the independents I worked with, including such fine indies as Bookmark in Halifax, Perfect Books in Ottawa, Ben McNally Books in Toronto, Bookshelf in Guelph, McNally Robinson in Winnipeg, Salt Spring Books on Salt Spring Island, Talewind Books in Sechelt, Black Bond Books in Surrey, Banyen Books in Vancouver and 32Books in North Vancouver. As well, over 400 other indies throughout Canada and innumerable others in the United States have been generously friendly to “Bee Time.”

Selling books as an independent bookseller is still a tough business, populated by passionate owners and staff who accept low profit margins and long hours in return for the satisfaction of being cornerstone institutions in their communities.

I hope you’ll join me on 30 April at 32Books in Vancouver, or at your own local independent bookstore across the country, to celebrate the outstanding contributions the indies provide to writers, readers, and communities.

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Comments always welcome:

Quotations

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I’m on my second thick journal of quotations, a collection of short word-bursts I’ve been gathering for almost two decades, mostly from books but also from magazines, newspapers and the occasional in-person comment.

The selected passages I copy into my journal are topically diverse, but with some consistent themes. One persistent thread has been simple appreciation for a well-turned phrase, even when the subject is of little interest. I have no fascination with automobiles, yet loved Yann Martel’s description of an early 1900’s Renault in his recent novel “The High Mountains of Portugal:”

This is a brand new four cylinder Renault, a masterpiece of engineering. Look at it! A creation that not only shines with the might of logic but sings with the allure of poetry.

Or this imaginative gem, from Simon Winchester”s nonfiction book “Pacific” (2015), describing the cruise industry’s downturn:

The combination of vacant staterooms and low-budget passengers steadily reduced Cunard’s profits to the thinness of the cucumbers in the Britannia lounge’s afternoon tea sandwiches.

I’ve long been intrigued by the power of personal stories, but also cognizant that memory is the friend of good storytelling but not necessarily the best companion for accuracy. These two quotations from recent books perfectly expressed that tension between memory and fact:

Memory is only one version of the truth.
Richard Wright, “A Life with Words,” 2015

If you remember the sweet crunch of an apple you had in your lunch box the first day of school, but an old Instagram photo reveals that it was an orange, which is truer: the taste in your mouth or the picture of a fruit you do not remember?
Camilla Gibb, in an article in Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper, 19 September 2015

Like all of us, I’ve endured the demise of relationships, and another theme in my collected passages has been faded love:

At the circus, the worst that can go wrong is a lion kills you. There’s a lot more that can go wrong with a marriage.
John Irving, “Avenue of Mysteries” 2015

You think there will be a time to say goodbye, but people have often gone before you know about it. And I don’t just mean the dying.
Rachel Joyce, “The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy,” 2014

My quotation journals also reveal uncertainty about how to reconcile with the past, letting go of people and events that inhibit us from getting on with our lives. Connie Gault, in her stunning book about prairie life “A Beauty” (2015), captured this most complex challenge in two simple sentences:

She’d seen what happened to people who dwelt on the past. They stranded themselves between whatever had happened and whatever might have been.

Moving on often requires forgiveness, an unusually complex personal challenge. The idea of forgiveness itself is confusing, but Elizabeth Hay found the elusive language to articulate this most difficult of concepts, in her novel “His Whole Life” (2015):

Forgiveness could be considered a kind of movement in one’s chest that made it easier to breathe.

I’ve had an ongoing interest in the activities and atmosphere that lead to clear writing, those locations, times and environments unique for each of us where insights emerge. My own best writing used to happen early in the morning, around 5:00 AM, when I would move to my home office from bed, coffee in hand, and emerge hours later having typed pages of prose that seemed to rarely need much editing.

But lately that’s changed, and my clearest writing happens now in coffee shops, during the afternoons between the office and home, including this blog piece that is being composed at one of my favorite Vancouver coffee shops, Brioche.

Susan Cain addressed café writing in her 2012 book about introverts, “Quiet:”

I wrote most of this book on a laptop at my favorite densely packed neighborhood café. I did this [because] the mere presence of other people helped my mind to make associative leaps.

Cafés historically have been places of conversation. Although today most coffee shop customers are online rather than engaged directly with another person, the shops still retain that flavor of conversing, albeit a mix of face-to-face and electronic. Perhaps that’s the inspiration for Susan Cain’s associative leaps, seemingly disconnected ideas finding each other, stimulated through café submergence in a sea of conversation.

The quotations that make it into my journal may be uniquely interesting to me and of little value to others, but the isolated snippets of language that jump out from the page and get transcribed serve as records of what has been on my mind, highlighting the thinking points that flavor each day.

Quotations are much like a personal chat with the author, shorthand emerging from that intimate relationship between writer and reader.

And perhaps, just perhaps, somewhere and sometime I’ve written something exquisite enough to make it into a reader’s journal.

It is, after all, the most human of traits to seek meaning in the world around us, and the most human of traits to share those insights. What better way to end than a Margaret Atwood quotation from her beautiful 2003 book about writing, “Negotiating with the Dead:”

Perhaps I have reached the age at which those who have been through the wash-and-spin cycle a few times become seized by the notion that their own experience in the suds may be relevant to others.

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I’d love to hear from you, especially with a favourite quotation or two:

Stentor

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Stentor

I’ve had the strangest illusionary experiences lately, almost mystical, occurring about two or three times a week.

Here’s one: I reached for a glass of water on the kitchen counter, and had a vivid memory of the apartment where I stayed in Asheville, North Carolina last year, during a speaking tour. And it was intense; I could remember almost every detail of the apartment, from décor to furnishings to the personality of my host.

That level of recall of someone else’s home is remarkable considering that Lori can change the art and other objects in our Vancouver apartment without my noticing for days. And nothing in my powerful Asheville recollection had anything to do with a glass of water.

Here’s another: I picked up a magazine from my nightstand, and flashed on an extremely detailed image of a one-celled organism that I had studied as an undergraduate student. The creature, Stentor, appeared in my mind as it looked under a microscope swimming in a dish of pond water. Although tiny, Stentor is a complex organism with many internal structures and external hairs and behaviors, all of which came back to me in exquisite detail during this mental impression.

And again, no obvious connection with what I was doing, or the magazine I was about to read.

Memory is known to work through associations, so that particular images are connected with information. For example, we see a face and we recall the person. But what is more curious is when memories are evoked by seemingly unassociated events.

Perhaps this flashback phenomenon, disconnected from its stimulus, is one of the pathways to creative writing, where imagination and inspiration interact to evoke and modify memories that can be woven together into story. The Canadian writer Robertson Davies described this process as: “Where the stuff comes from, what happens to it, how the unconscious and the conscious must be allowed to kiss and conmingle, and then how the conscious has to do the editing.”

Another conduit of creativity occurs when fully formed ideas leap into consciousness, seemingly from nowhere. When writing my recent book “Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive” I had just about completed a chapter about honey but couldn’t seem to find that last sentence.

I looked at the chapter almost daily for about a month without an ending emerging, until one day I woke up with these words in my head, fully formed: “Food at its best carries memories and reflections that go beyond sustenance to connect the personalities who harvest and the land from which they gather, making holy the simple act of eating.”

Random visions and the sudden arrival of fully formed sentences have one vital element in common: both serve the interests of storytelling. The Asheville apartment and the one-celled Stentor were images that held potential to evoke character and plot. These detailed memories were like freeze-framed scenes from a movie; all I had to do was press the play button and a story could unfold.

Our human brains are designed to mingle the conscious and the unconscious, and for the possibility of their fusion into language and story. I suspect all of us mingle dream images and consciousness, memory and observation, but perhaps it is the writer’s unique talent to unfreeze those frames and carry them forward into storytelling.

I don’t know if my brain flashes will continue to emerge into consciousness, or whether writing will flow from these snapshots. But they connect to stories from my past, and for that I treasure these occasional random eruptions of memory.

The Chat

To my great surprise, my recent book “Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive” has won the 2015 Governor-General’s Literary Award for Nonfiction (http://ggbooks.ca/books/non-fiction/english/bee-time-lessons-from-the-hive). It’s been a huge thrill, almost on par with the day my daughter was born, or that first life-changing conversation with Lori at a sculpture artist’s show opening, a chat that has extended into a lifelong dialogue.

And it’s the gift that keeps on giving; pretty much every day since the 28 October announcement has brought some interesting invitation or idea across my cyber-desk. Opportunities to lecture or read at bookstores, invitations to do workshops, quirky thoughts on the telapathetic powers of bees, catch-up notes from long-lost friends, information about fascinating projects being done by artists to draw attention to the plight of bees (see, for example, http://www.thegoodofthehive.com) and much more has filled my inbox.

And there’s been the occasional insult. My favorite so far is that I was a “too smart by half nitwit.” Not bad, although not quite up to the professor who called me a “nincompoop” early in my career.

But I really knew I’d arrived in the literary stratosphere when an editor contacted me about doing one of those interviews that newspapers publish with authors, assuming that we’re interesting and knowledgeable. You know the ones: there’s a nice picture of the author, followed by a series of bolded questions that provide we authors with the opportunity to show off our erudition, but usually come off with us seeming to be crabby and ill-tempered.

I was a bit concerned when I received the request, because the questions can often be hard to answer. Things like “Which of your favorite authors writes the best sentences?” Or “So what are you reading now?” I dread that particular question in radio or live interviews since, although I read constantly, my mind invariably goes blank when asked about what I’m reading or to recommend a great book.

But to my surprise I enjoyed my cyber-chat with Trevor Corkum of the online outlet 49th Shelf. He had read the book, had some insightful questions, and even his query about “writers who have influenced me” wasn’t painful as I had some time to think rather than having to answer on the spot.

Hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did. You can find it at http://49thshelf.com/Blog/2015/11/06/The-Chat-Trevor-Corkum-Interviews-2015-GGs-Winner-Mark-L.-Winston

From There to Here

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(Yucatan cenote, Photo credit: rodolfoaraiza.com / Foter / CC BY-ND)

Here’s the first piece of writing I published, back in 1974, in the academic journal Cytobios, from research I had done as an undergraduate student at Boston University:

Melatonin (5-methoxy-n-acetyl tryptamine) causes the blanching of vertebrate skin in those animals capable of rapid skin could changes, i.e. reversible alteration of the distribution of pigment granules in their melanocytes. Recent evidence suggests that a light-dark sensitive enzyme in the biosynthetic pathway of melatonin, N acetyl-transferase, regulates pineal gland production of melatonin which, in turn, affects the endogenous diurnal rhythms.

And here’s one of the latest, from my 2014 book “Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive:”

Walking into an apiary is intellectually challenging and emotionally rich, sensual and riveting. Time slows down. Focus increases, awareness heightens, all senses captivated.

Lifting my smoker, I am totally in the present but also connected to memories of friends, fellow beekeepers and innumerable long days in other apiaries when we shared periods of tedium, hard physical labor and occasional glimpses of wisdom. These moments of understanding, penetrating the complexity of our usually unfathomable natural world, still take my breath away.

The first was from the scientific research planet Academic, a globe that rotates around the star Jargon, a dense and impenetrable mass composed of the hottest of air. Academic is a planet of extreme irony, since scientific research purports to seek clarity rather than obfuscation, striving to precisely explain phenomena rather than making them more obscure.

The second piece was written four decades later, and while it used even more long multisyllabic words, its point is clear and the meaning easily accessible to readers who are not experts in bees or beekeeping.

I’m currently involved in a poetry project with bees at its centre, further pushing my comfort zone outside the boundaries of academic writing. I had coffee the other day with my poetry colleague Renee Saklikar, who asked an unexpected question about my transition from academic to public writing: How did I get from there to here?

I was caught short without an answer. I searched my memory banks for the moment I could point to where academic writing began shifting towards the comprehensible, but the origins of my interest in public writing remained clouded in the mists of the distant past.

Until, that is, our turtle died. Ismael was a Mexican turtle that a friend and I picked up while driving through Mexico. Mary Power (now a professor at the University of California, Berkeley) and I were on the scientific version of a vision quest, travelling through the Yucatan peninsula visiting the immensely interesting and unusual terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems of that region, hoping to make observations about the natural world that might trigger topics for our graduate research.

Ismael went with Mary when she moved to the University of Washington for her doctoral studies, and she cared for him with great affection until his recent passing. Her email to me reporting his death triggered a cascade of memories from that 1974 trip, coincidentally the same year my melatonin paper was published.

But it was only today that I connected the dots from Renee to Mary, and realized 1974 was the year my writing began diverging from the academic because of a journal I kept from that Mexican trip, “Naturalist Notes.”

It was a small, black hardcover journal, not at all distinguished, but it looked to me like something a 19th century British naturalist might carry into the jungle to take notes. My inspiration was just such a naturalist, Henry Walter Bates, who wrote the 1863 book “The Naturalist on the River Amazons: A Record of the Adventures, Habits of Animals, Sketches of Brazilian and Indian Life, and Aspects of Nature under the Equator, during Eleven Years of Travel.”

Bates published “The Naturalist on the River Amazons” about his expedition to collect species not known to western science, and to provide evidence for the newfangled theory of evolution by natural selection. His book was brilliant, a readable and engaging mix of natural history and astute observations about the animals, plants and humans he encountered.

He described in compelling detail where and how people lived along the Amazon, what plants and animals they used for food and medicine and how the locals interacted with the Amazon river system and surrounding jungle. And he wrote about the exotic plants and animals he encountered, from towering buttressed jungle trees weighed down by vines to the tiniest of beetles and the colorful butterflies from which he developed his now-classic theories of how and why organisms mimic each other.

I was inspired by his keen observations and humanizing language to write clearly, with feeling, in my own naturalist-in-the-Yucatan notes. Copying Bates, I sought clear writing to find that simple formula through which complexity becomes accessible.

My own notes were never published, and certainly didn’t reach the heights of fine writing that Bates achieved, but I did reread them recently and was fascinated to see my very early attempts to emerge from academic jargon into the light of the comprehensible.

I wrote about the Yucatan’s unusual clear water mangrove swamps, the interminably deep limestone cenote sinkholes in which the ancient Mayans used to toss their sacrificial victims, the industrious dung beetles who could clean up fresh scat almost before it’s odour hit the air.

My naturalist notes were intertwined with Mayan history, an advanced civilization that precipitously collapsed, leaving behind ruins now largely taken over by jungle. But accents of their former prominence live on in colorful clothing and the Mayan language, still spoken and preferred by many over Spanish.

We held our breath and dove for lobsters off the coast with Mexican fishermen, astounded by how quickly we came up empty and how long they stayed down before surfacing with a large Atlantic lobster in each hand. We camped out on beaches or slept in cheap communal hotels, sometimes swinging in brightly coloured Yucatan hammocks large enough to fit entire families.

I was writing for myself, but with Bates looking over my shoulder I sought clarity and flow, learning from his example to favor approachable description over jargon. My notes were replete with questions rather than littered with the certainty expected from academic writing. Like Bates, I tried to pose simple questions with profound implications and copied his habit of illustrating with sketches, augmenting my still-forming language with the visual impact of pictures.

I’ve never stopped writing “naturalist notes,” although they eventually morphed into books and blogs, newspaper columns and magazine pieces. Getting from the “there,” academic writing, to the “here,” writing for the public, began for me with Bates, from whom I learned to pass writing through the filter of readability.

I wish all academic writing could evolve towards the model of more appealing writing that Bates provided. A Batesian rewrite of my melatonin paper might start something like this:

One of the most startling occurrences among animals is their sudden lightening of skin colour, sometimes taking less than a second to go from a dark to an almost clear tone. This process is mediated by the chemical melatonin, which in humans regulates our daily circadian rhythms. Remarkably, it’s a simple enzyme in other animals that triggers melatonin release almost instantaneously, regulating these extraordinary changes in skin coloration.

More accessible, right? Here’s an idea, academics: give Bates a good read before starting your next academic paper, and let the engaging writing flow.

Honey, Hives and Poetry

Bees do many things, but one undervalued side product of being involved in apiculture is the diversity of doors that bees open for human interaction. There are, of course, the obvious interdisciplinary collaborations: entomologist with botanist, scientist with beekeeper, professor with government regulator, environmentalist with wild bee enthusiast.

I’ve been privileged to enjoy all of those interactions, but perhaps my most interesting partnerships have been with artists. I’ve worked with dancers, novelists, sculptors and multimedia artists, with valued learning and some deep friendships emerging from each project.

And now I’ve embarked on another artistic journey, working with award-winning poet Renée Sarojini Saklikar on a project connecting poets with beekeepers, chefs, urban farmers, food bank workers and others to celebrate and explore the boundaries of language and bees.

The project inhabits the intersection of the global movement to grow healthy food in cities, a growing awareness of threats to honeybee and wild bee pollinators and the vibrant poetry scene in Vancouver. Poetry is the ideal voice through which to capture our memories and reflections about food, going beyond sustenance to connect the personalities who harvest and the land from which they gather.

Saklikar writes thecanadaproject (https://thecanadaproject.wordpress.com), a life-long poem chronicle that includes poetry, fiction, and essays. Her book, Children of Air India, un/authorized exhibits and interjections, was the winner of the 2014 Canadian Authors Literary Award for poetry and a finalist for the 2014 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Award.

She also has collected poetry about bees for decades, and admits to a bee poetry fetish. We intersected when I interviewed her for the book I was writing, and then we attended each other’s book launches, hers for Children of Air India and mine for Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive for which she contributed considerable insights into how poets have viewed bees.

Poetry allows the exploration of themes that can be difficult to express through prose, inhabiting the interstitial cracks between fact and emotion, images and dreams, imagination and language. But poetry is also about sounds, vibration and undercurrents, the song beneath connected words.

And, as we learned through our first public performance, there is a bit of the poet even in those who don’t think themselves poetic.

We premiered our collaboration last month at the Vancouver Public Library, in a program titled “Honey, Hives and Poetry in the City.” It was part of Canada’s national poetry month, which fortuitously had the theme of poetry and food this year.

Rachel Rose joined us on stage. She is the poet laureate of Vancouver and has dedicated her three-year appointment to championing poetry, language and the arts in Vancouver. She’s connecting established and emerging poets with chefs, urban farmers and others engaged in nourishing citizens to create a collaborative book of poetry inspired by food.

Elee Kraljii Gardiner and two members of Thursdays Writing Collective also joined the program. The Collective runs free drop-in creative writing classes at the Carnegie Community Centre for members of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, an area challenged by poverty-related issues. Rounding out the evening with a honey tasting was Sarah Common and others from Hives for Humanity, an urban beekeeping project in the heart of the Downtown Eastside (http://hivesforhumanity.com).

To our surprise and delight, we had a large and engaged audience, ranging from poets to beekeepers, urban residents to foodies, backyard gardeners to food truck groupies, all curious about what inspirations about food might be drawn from bees and honey. Their enthusiasm was palpable, their applause frequent and their response enthusiastic when we turned the tables on the audience and asked them to take a few minutes to write some brief poems of their own.

The quality of their writing was notable, audible gasps of delight erupted spontaneously from the audience as we read a few of their brief poems aloud. Here are two of their poems; I don’t know the authors’ names as they were submitted and read out anonymously:

I

A sun-fed engine

revving in the garden

spinning, turning its wheels

turning up pollen like petrol

all cylinders firing, making

liquid gold, hot fan of wings,

dancing in circles, humming

and humming. Oh crazy

makers, legs burdened with

yellow. Eat the sweetness,

pace your cell, keep the

cylinders firing.

 

II

Early morning.

Stillness.

Soon the dogs bark and race

out the door careening past

the hives and down the fields

past the apple trees.

JOY!

 

Renee and I were stoked by the evening to grow the bee/poetry interface, and hope to write some new work and evolve our collaboration into a multi-media performance with music and other poets.

And we aspire to inspire, by offering opportunities for those who don’t consider themselves poets to dip their toes into language and vocalizations that express the inestimable insights that bees can bring to our human world.

“Bee Time” CSWA 2014 Book Award Winner!

I’m thrilled that “Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive has been selected for the 2014 Science in Society Book Award by the Canadian Science Writers Association!

http://sciencewriters.ca

CSWA 2014 Book Award Winners Announced

Congratulations to this year’s CSWA Book Award Winners!

The Canadian Science Writers’ Association/ Association candienne des rédacteurs scientifiques is pleased to announce the winners in the 2014 Science in Society Book Awards competition. The winners will each be presented with a certificate and $1000 cash prize during an awards dinner held in conjunction with the CSWA ‘s 44th annual conference in Saskatoon, SK, hosted by the University of Saskatchewan 18-21 June 2015.

Winner for the 2014 Science in Society General Book Award competition:

Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive  by Mark L. Winston, Harvard University Press.

Being among bees is a full-body experience, Mark Winston writes—from the low hum of tens of thousands of insects and the pungent smell of honey and beeswax, to the sight of workers flying back and forth between flowers and the hive. The experience of an apiary slows our sense of time, heightens our awareness, and inspires awe. Bee Time presents Winston’s reflections on three decades spent studying these creatures, and on the lessons they can teach about how humans might better interact with one another and the natural world.

Like us, honeybees represent a pinnacle of animal sociality. How they submerge individual needs into the colony collective provides a lens through which to ponder human societies. Winston explains how bees process information, structure work, and communicate, and examines how corporate boardrooms are using bee societies as a model to improve collaboration. He investigates how bees have altered our understanding of agricultural ecosystems and how urban planners are looking to bees in designing more nature-friendly cities.

The relationship between bees and people has not always been benign. Bee populations are diminishing due to human impact, and we cannot afford to ignore what the demise of bees tells us about our own tenuous affiliation with nature. Toxic interactions between pesticides and bee diseases have been particularly harmful, foreshadowing similar effects of pesticides on human health. There is much to learn from bees in how they respond to these challenges. In sustaining their societies, bees teach us ways to sustain our own.

Mark L. Winston has had a distinguished career researching, teaching, writing and commenting on bees and agriculture, environmental issues, and science policy. He was a founding faculty member of the Banff Centre’s Science Communication programme, and consults widely on utilizing dialogue to develop leadership and communication skills, focus on strategic planning, inspire organisational change, and thoughtfully engage public audiences with controversial issues. Winston’s work has appeared in numerous books, commentary columns for The Vancouver Sun, The New York Times, The Sciences, Orion magazine and frequently on CBC Radio and Television and National Public Radio. He currently is a Senior Fellow in Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue, and a Professor of Biological Sciences.

The Book is Out!

 

cover Bee Time

Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive is more or less officially out. Hard copies have arrived in most bookstores and can be found for sale on the usual websites; the e-book will be available 6 October from Amazon and Harvard Press.

Coming up next is a whirlwind round of bookstore readings and signings, talks at various venues (for a schedule, see http://winstonhive.com/?page_id=300) and hopefully lots of effusive reviews. I’m particularly excited about the “Independent Bookstore Tour” at my favorite meccas for discerning readers: Munro’s in Victoria, Elliott Bay in Seattle, Powell’s in Portland and the Boulder Book Store in Boulder.

I wasn’t expecting to have this experience again. I’ve written five books previously, the last published in 2002, and I recall proclaiming to my editor at Harvard Press that Travels in the Genetically Modified Zone was my last book; I was done. He smiled that “I’ve heard this before from writers” smile, and just said simply: “Writers write.”

It’s transcendent experience, publishing a book, simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying, much like I imagine bungee jumping or skydiving. It takes a great act of faith to leap, believing that the cord will hold, the parachute open, the book not fall flat on its literary face.

It’s a moment to appreciate, this publishing instant, particularly poignant because it is so fleeting. I look back at past books from a distance, with little memory of actually writing those tens of thousands of words. It’s as if there was a ghostwriter at work in a parallel universe whose book managed to jump the space/time continuum with my name on it.

Bee Time has been particularly meaningful in both connecting and reconnecting. The connecting has been between my time as a bee researcher and my current work in the Centre for Dialogue. This book is about bees but emerged from and is heavily flavored by my time in dialogue, making whole these seemingly disparate career streams.

The reconnecting has been with bees and their keepers, both entities from which I had lost touch in recent years when dialogue dominated my time. I’ve been back out to the hives recently, and refreshed my relationships with many old beekeeping friends as I’ve accepted a few invitations to speak at bee meetings.

I’m enormously grateful to bees, and to beekeeping, but my deepest gratitude remains reserved for readers. I read, a lot, and appreciate the love of language and ideas in others.

Readers have inspired me to write better, think harder, and care more. It’s a deep pleasure, this stringing of words together. The challenge of the empty pages needing to be filled remains a profound thrill.

I’ll forget Bee Time some day, similar to how my other books eventually dipped below my personal radar, but now is still that sweetest of literary moments. The book is poised, readings and signings have been scheduled, the first reviews are emerging, and the writing is still fresh enough to believe that I did indeed write that book.

Yet, a few thoughts for a next book have started whispering as intruders into the Bee Time space, still only as brief phrases not yet formed into anything like a full sentence. All too soon the lessons from the hive will have receded, supplanted by the next set of phrasings and sentences forming themselves into paragraphs, then chapters.

Writers write, with all praise to that sublime muse of creation that blesses us with the urge, and occasionally the ability, to articulate.